OpenAI braces for fight with NY Times

A SIGN for the New York Times hangs above the entrance of its building, May 6, 2021 in New York.
A SIGN for the New York Times hangs above the entrance of its building, May 6, 2021 in New York. AP

A BARRAGE of high-profile lawsuits in a New York federal court will test the future of ChatGPT and other artificial intelligence products that wouldn’t be so eloquent had they not ingested huge troves of copyrighted human works.

But are AI chatbots — in this case, widely commercialized products made by OpenAI and its business partner Microsoft — breaking copyright and fair competition laws? Professional writers and media outlets will face a difficult fight to win that argument in court.

“I would like to be optimistic on behalf of the authors, but I’m not. I just think they have an uphill battle here,” said copyright attorney Ashima Aggarwal, who used to work for academic publishing giant John Wiley & Sons.

One lawsuit comes from The New York Times. Another from a group of well-known novelists such as John Grisham, Jodi Picoult and George R.R. Martin. A third from bestselling nonfiction writers, including an author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography on which the hit movie “Oppenheimer” was based.

The lawsuits

Each of the lawsuits makes different allegations, but they all center on the San Francisco-based company OpenAI “building this product on the back of other peoples’ intellectual property,” said attorney Justin Nelson, who is representing the nonfiction writers and whose law firm is also representing The Times.

“What OpenAI is saying is that they have a free ride to take anybody else’s intellectual property really since the dawn of time, as long as it’s been on the internet,” Nelson said.

The Times sued in December, arguing that ChatGPT and Microsoft’s Copilot are competing with the same outlets they are trained on and diverting web traffic away from the newspaper and other copyright holders who depend on advertising revenue generated from their sites to keep producing their journalism. It also provided evidence of the chatbots spitting out Times articles word-for-word. At other times the chatbots falsely attributed misinformation to the paper in a way it said damaged its reputation.

One senior federal judge is so far presiding over all three cases, as well as a fourth from two more nonfiction authors who filed another lawsuit last week. U.S. District Judge Sidney H. Stein has been at the Manhattan-based court since 1995 when he was nominated by then-President Bill Clinton.

Response

OpenAI and Microsoft haven’t yet filed formal counter-arguments on the New York cases, but OpenAI made a public statement this week describing The Times lawsuit as “without merit” and saying that the chatbot’s ability to regurgitate some articles verbatim was a “rare bug.”

“Training AI models using publicly available internet materials is fair use, as supported by long-standing and widely accepted precedents,” said a Monday blog post from the company. It went on to suggest that The Times “either instructed the model to regurgitate or cherry-picked their examples from many attempts.”

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